Sermons from Rev Canon Dr Ian Davies
Sunday 12th June
When you look at a painting I wonder what do you look at first?
· Do you stand well back and see all the colours making up the whole thing; the use of light and shade and contrasts.
· Do you focus on the characters, the people in the scene – whether they’re happy or sad, noble or wicked; quiet or agitated
· Or do you move in close to look at the way the artist has built up the overall effect with each brush stroke
...because the scene in our gospel reading is another of Luke’s great paintings – and any of these approaches will work. The story of Jesus at the house of Simon the Pharisee is as full of gospel meaning as any story in the New Testament – it’s full of sheer artistry that brings the good news of the gospel into vivid, colourful reality.
Let’s look at the overall effect. Three main characters predominate in the scene – Simon – a Pharisee, Jesus – and this unnamed woman (and people have often supposed this to be the same scene as we find in Matthew and Mark, but according to scholars like Tom Wright and Bishop John Pritchard.. who are eminent but accessible New Testament scholars...it probably isn’t)
The balance of the scene is quite superb, with Jesus keeping his poise between the outrageous adoration of the woman on one side and the equally outrageous rudeness of his host on the other (I think Simon might have had quite a role in the Galatian church if he’d ever converted). The story flows back and forth between them with passion and power – and we’re able to relate to them because they’re vivid and credible – we find parts of ourselves in them.
The host is a Pharisee, Simon, who wasn’t like many who couldn’t stand this trouble-making blasphemer Jesus - who seemed to threaten their religious control at every turn. No - Simon wasn’t completely opposed to Jesus’ teaching. And to be fair to the term - actually there were a number of different positions you could take as a Pharisee – very much like positions we find in today’s church (!) Perhaps the majority were what we might call hard-line right-wingers (no difference there – the change “over my dead body” brigade). How many Anglicans does it take to change a light bulb?.... (A. ‘Change – who said anything about change). But there were others, including Simon, who were prepared to give Jesus a fair hearing. He’d heard rumours that Jesus was a prophet and was keen to see him for himself.
He thinks he’s found the answer – (“Jesus couldn’t possibly be a prophet because he hasn’t realized what sort of woman this is..!.”) – only to be proved utterly and completely wrong. Jesus not only knows where she’s been (he’s know where we’ve all ‘been’ and still loves us to bits) - and he knows what she is now – a forgiven sinner. He also knows what Simon is secretly thinking. Don’t forget Luke has told us three times in the first two sentences that Simon is a Pharisee, and that it is to his house that both Jesus and this woman have come.
Now then – you might be thinking: how on earth did she get there? She was obviously an uninvited guest. But this is where we need the help of some scholarship to get a sense of how things were in the ancient near east. What we think of as ‘private life’ in the modern west was largely unknown in Jesus’ world: doors would often remain open, allowing beggars, extra friends, or simple curious passers-by just to wander in. The woman wants to anoint Jesus – and we learn that finally this is an expression of grateful love because she has received God’s overflowing forgiveness. But when she finds herself close to Jesus she is completely overcome, and his feet are soaked with her tears before she can even get the jar of ointment open. Then trying to make things better, she makes them much, much worse (as far as the onlookers were concerned): she lets down her hair: something no decent woman would ever do in public, and wipes his feet, kissing them all the while – and then finally does what she’d intended to do from the start – anoints them with the perfumed ointment.
So what’s going on? What is Luke (the artist & storyteller) trying to portray about the impact of God’s love on a human situation.
Well Luke has already shown in his gospel how Jesus turns normal expectations completely on their heads (often outrageously so) whenever he talks about God bringing in his kingdom. This is never about anything boring and samey – this is a time of exuberant generosity, surprising grace – and (‘as sure as eggs is eggs’), fierce opposition. In this single incident we see what radical Christianity – the gospel – the Good News really means. Think about it for a moment:
· social convention is being thrown out of the window
· and forgiveness and love are making possible something that wasn’t there before by setting new standards and raising new expectations.
· And then human beings suddenly appear not as society and culture have constructed them (& labelled them) – they’re no longer in some kind of pecking order, or priority list, but they are as God sees them – warts and all.
We’re all hopeless sinners folks – all of us! We don’t have some wonderful divine inner core that simply needs awakening, as some new age thinking would imply – but we are made in God’s image, made to be in relationship with him - we need our rebellion, our rubbish dealt with. We don’t need a little nurture for our psychic well-being, we need an outpouring of grace and mercy that will completely change our lives.
Our problem – maybe a bit like Simon the Pharisee - is that we don’t reckon with ‘having messed up’ as the total fact that characterizes our humanity (if we’re honest) – that’s often other people’s problem!. Nor do we long for forgiveness as the only effective remedy. (I’ve said this before..) - we like a little bit of church, just every now and then, very much on our own terms; & when we feel so disposed...(bleagh!! – Revelation shows us that God doesn’t do lukewarm it turns his stomach – have a read of the message to the Laodiceans in Revelation Ch 3 – who were ‘neither hot nor cold’)
I’m doing a lot of remembering as it’s 10 years since Sue and I came to live amongst you – taking stock of 12 years in total doing this ministry stuff (I always do this time of year anyway as I help prepare folks for ordination. And do you know something I’ve realized? If we all came, all the time, like it really mattered if we didn’t, because we felt like we don’t want to miss out, this little place would be absolutely inundated with people - and together just think what a huge difference we could make in this community! I was talking to Christine our Treasurer a few days ago wondering what the explanation was for our being able to pay the Parish Share early this month. The answer is that a few more folks have signed up to give by Standing Order. In other words this shows their love and devotion to God so even if they are unable to come (for whatever reason), they’re still regularly giving. And I trust that these are people who see giving as part of their worship; a commitment born out of knowing that they’re forgiven. (so when someone doesn’t seem to be putting anything in the offertory plate (and we may feel a little embarrassed passing it by) – it’s because their offering may have already been made at source. Think about it!
Like this woman whose gratitude was all to do with the fact that she knew she was forgiven.
And something else if we all gave financially as part of our worship, it might go a long way to helping us not just to be solvent, but to be able to give stuff away. Now wouldn’t that be great!!? Luke the gospel writer shows this reversal of the way things are supposed to work again and again.
· the recklessly wasteful - prodigal –son
· the Pharisee and the tax collector.
· the Good Samaritan
Luke lived in a church that was beginning to come to terms with God’s astonishing reversal of conventional wisdom. There were many sincere Jews - like many good churchgoers - who sadly reject the subversive message of Jesus. But there were others who were – and still are – flooding into churches delighted (as was this woman) to discover that their sins are forgiven by this amazing God of such generous love.
And isn’t that why we come? Isn’t that the amazing news that gets the blood flowing?; that makes us put meeting with God ahead of other things we could be doing – because we realize how important he is - because after all, that’s what worship is. Because he’s worth it!
One of the things you’ll notice by spending time with this story is the way Jesus turns the table on the Pharisee. He - Simon is the one who is exposed as being guilty of poor hospitality – which is almost as much of a social blunder as the woman letting down her hair. Simon the Pharisee has never come to terms with the depths of his own heart, and so doesn’t appreciate God’s generous love when it sits in person at his table. I wonder have we? For Luke, true faith is what happens when someone looks into the face of Jesus, says ‘I trust you’ - and the sign and proof of this faith is an overflowing of love and worship, generosity – and life!
(Overwhelmed by love...#918)